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Last Updated on August 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Sally Rooney's Normal People centers on Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan, whose stories begin in high school and end in college. Connell and Marianne are initially divided by surface-level differences—Marianne is a loner who is bullied at school, while Connell is popular; the Sheridans are wealthy, while the Waldrons are working-class. Both protagonists lose themselves but, through their relationship, eventually find themselves over the course of the novel.

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As a popular high school student, Connell has had brief sexual relationships with a few girls. Although having casual sex is expected of him, he finds the act upsetting, and afterward he keenly feels the humiliation of hearing his experiences discussed by his friends at school. 

He'd had to hear his actions repeated back to him later in the locker room: his errors, and, so much worse, his excruciating attempts at tenderness, performed in gigantic pantomime.

Connell finds that with Marianne, sex is entirely different; there is a strong sense of intimacy and privacy between them, and as Connell wishes, Marianne keeps their relationship a secret.

Marianne, who comes from an abusive family and is considered an outcast in high school, struggles with a deep sense of self-loathing throughout the novel and is particularly insecure during her early relationship with Connell. During sex, she asks,

Am I doing something wrong?

Marianne's question illustrates her initial lack of confidence and her desire to please Connell. Connell, in turn, often questions himself and looks to others for approval, placing a high value on the opinions of his classmates and also, privately, of Marianne.

The first time Connell tells Marianne he loves her is in his bedroom, while the two are still in high school and sleeping together secretly. This moment is extremely significant for Marianne, who has just confessed to Connell that her father used to hit her and her mother.

Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she's aware of this now, while it's happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.

By contrast, the final time in the novel that Connell tells Marianne he loves her is almost the inverse: the two are celebrating New Year’s Eve at a crowded pub, surrounded by their former classmates, and while the experience is again highly significant for Marianne, her emotional reaction is very different.

She was laughing then, and her face was red. She was in his power, he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed. It was so unlike him to behave that way in public that he must have been doing it on purpose, to please her. How strange to find herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of...

(The entire section contains 771 words.)

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